The UN Security Council’s First North Korean Human Rights Session since 2017

On August 17 of this year, for the first time in over five years, the UN Security Council held an open session devoted to human rights abuses in North Korea. This meeting was particularly noteworthy because the Security Council has not held such an open public meeting on North Korean human rights issues since December 2017.

In 2014, following the release of the widely acclaimed report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 2014, the Security Council held formal discussions on DPRK human rights abuses as a threat to peace and security in Asia in December 201420152016, and 2017

During his term as president, Donald Trump was inconsistent in policy on North Korea and its human rights issues. In his first address to the United Nations in September 2017, he belittled the North Korean leader as “Little Rocket Man,” expressed concern about its nuclear and missile programs, and criticized its human rights record. In December 2017, the Trump administration supported a discussion of human rights in North Korea at the UN Security Council. Initially, Trump was an outspoken critic of the Kim Jong-un regime, including its military and human rights policies. He denounced the detention of American citizens by North Korea, and he singled out North Korean defectors for praise in his 2018 State of the Union speech. Furthermore, a day or two after that speech, he met with a group of North Korean defectors in the Oval Office. 

In March of 2018, Trump made an abrupt about-face, and announced he would meet with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. After that summit in June 2018, Trump announced that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love,” and he had received “beautiful letters” from the North Korean despot. The courtship with Pyongyang ended with the public failure of the Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un in February 2019.

Furthermore, the United States singlehandedly prevented consideration of North Korea’s human rights abuses in the UN Security Council in December 2019. Nine members of the Security Council must agree to place an issue on the council’s agenda—eight members of the council proposed a meeting on human rights in North Korea, but the United States refused to join the group, leaving the request for a meeting one council member short.

In December 2020, after Trump had failed in his reelection bid, a discussion was held at the UN Security Council, this time with Washington’s support, although because of the Covid-19 pandemic it was a virtual meeting. Furthermore, China and Russia were successful in preventing this from being an open meeting with media able to monitor the discussion. Immediately after the meeting, eight Security Council members, including the United States, held a press conference to discuss the meeting. The eight, including the United States, issued a joint statement on the meeting that was critical of North Korea.

During the last year or so of the Trump administration, the United States made a few half-hearted efforts on North Korean human rights, but the U.S. withdrawal from any participation in the UN Human Rights Council undermined those efforts. 

United States Leads Effort for Latest Security Council Meeting on DPRK Human Rights

The United States led the recent successful effort to hold a public meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss human rights in North Korea with media present. Beginning in 2014, when the Security Council held its first open meeting to discuss North Korea human rights, the meetings were held in December. In October to November 2014 the UN General Assembly adopted a strongly worded resolution approving the work of the UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights. That resolution requested the Security Council to consider the North Korea human rights issue as a threat to international peace and security. December was chosen, not only because it was soon after adoption of the General Assembly resolution commending the commission report, but also because December 10 is the anniversary of the formal adoption in December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly. The last open public Security Council session to discuss North Korea’s human rights was held on December 11, 2017.

The presidency of the UN Security Council rotates monthly among the 15 countries that are council members. Five are permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The other 10 are chosen by vote of the General Assembly to serve staggered two-year terms on the council, with five new members each year. Attention is given to assure that all geographical regions of the world have representatives, and efforts are made to assure that the term membership rotates within regions. 

The presidency of the council rotates alphabetically for a term of one month. The United States serves as council president during the month of August 2023. With Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the head of the U.S. mission to the United Nations and U.S. representative to the Security Council, as president of the council, there was reason to press for a discussion of human rights abuses in North Korea.

The United States leadership on North Korean human rights was highlighted by this Security Council session. In addition, however, just two weeks earlier, the U.S. Senate confirmed Julie Turner as U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights with rank of ambassador after the nomination languished in the Senate for six months. 

The Security Council session on North Korean human rights was held on August 17, 2023. The session began with a briefing by High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. Türk is an Austrian diplomat who is the senior UN official dealing with human rights issues at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. In his presentation to the Security Council, Türk said that the DPRK has rarely been “more painfully closed” than it is at present. Though this was initially the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has grown even more repressive as the pandemic has waned. Türk also made a pointed request that all UN member states “refrain from forcibly repatriating North Koreans,” and provide North Koreans protections that UN members states are to obligated to provide.

The second speaker before the Security Council was Elizabeth Salmón, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK. Salmón, a professor of law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, was appointed special rapporteur in August 2022 by the UN Human Rights Council to report to the council and to the UN General Assembly on the status of human rights in North Korea. Salmón reported that human rights in North Korea continue to deteriorate “under the current state of tensions and unprecedented isolation.” She said that the prolonged border closure for over three years and the repression of informal markets have brought increased hardship, resulting in some people starving and others have died due to malnutrition, diseases, and lack of access to healthcare. Furthermore, the regime gives priority to the allocation of resources to the military.

In addition to the two UN officials, the Security Council also heard from Il-hyeok Kim, a refugee from North Korea, who described brutal living conditions in North Korea. He said that the Kim regime “turns our blood and sweat into a luxurious life for the leadership.” He appealed to the Security Council to take action to protect human rights in North Korea.

Response of Security Council Member Countries: Vocal Protests from China and North Korea

All Security Council member countries spoke during the debate. Thomas-Greenfield called the DPRK “one of the most repressive and totalitarian states in the world.” “The regime neglects the well-being of people in the DPRK. Its food distribution policies favor the military, and lead to chronic malnourishment among its citizens. Pyongyang also relies on forced labor and the exploitation of workers—domestically and overseas—to power its unlawful weapons programs,” she said in her remarks.

Non-Security Council members of the United Nations are permitted to speak if an issue under consideration is of direct concern to the member country. South Korea, for example, requested to speak and participate in this session on human rights in North Korea, and it was permitted to join the discussion. Reflecting the current South Korean government’s commitment to human rights in North Korea, Ambassador Hwang Joon-kook expressed gratitude for his government that the Security Council was again taking up this human rights issue in the North Korea in an open, public meeting of the council. He also cited the statement in the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights released in 2014 that “the gravity, scale and nature of these [human rights] violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

North Korea could also have participated in the discussion at the Security Council but chose not to participate. In a scathing denunciation of the Security Council meeting, North Korea’s vice foreign minister Kim Son Gyong called the meeting “despicable” and only intended to promote Washington’s geopolitical ambitions. He attacked the United States as a “declining” power said the Council should examine the United States, which is “the anti-people empire of evils, totally depraved due to all sorts of social evils.”

China also publicly opposed holding the session on North Korean human rights violations, but its opposition did not focus on defending the regime in Pyongyang or its record on human rights. The spokesperson at the Chinese UN mission in New York said, “China sees no added value for the council to have such a meeting and will be against it.” He said “maintenance of international peace and security” is the mandate of the Security Council, and that “a council meeting on human rights in the DPRK falls outside the council’s mandate, politicizes human rights issues, and only serves to intensify confrontation and antagonism.” The Security Council is not the place for discussing human rights.

China, however, was implicitly criticized by both UN officials and by several other Security Council member countries during the council meeting. Beginning with the first speaker at the council meeting, Türk urged “all states to refrain from forcibly repatriating North Koreans, and to provide them with the required protections.” China is the country that has returned North Korean escapees against their will to North Korea. Escapees who have subsequently succeeded in leaving North Korea later have given horrific accounts of brutal treatment by Pyongyang. Several other countries raised this particular issue, including the United States. To avoid angering the Chinese government, however, China is usually not mentioned by name. There is no question, though, that China is the problem.

Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.